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The Triad's real civil war 'heritage'

How Unionism in the Piedmont undercuts the neo-Confederate narrative in North Carolina

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*Editor's note: This article was originally written and published in 2016. Due to YES! Weekly switching website platforms, the original online article was scrubbed from the internet due to a transferring issue. It has been republished online on June 11, 2020.

“We just want to take pride in our Southern heritage,” said Gary Williamson, founder of the Snow Camp based “Southern heritage” organization Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC, at a Nov. 26, 2016, rally on the steps of Burlington’s Municipal building.

“Death to the New Confederacy” chanted protestors on the other side of the police barricade. Unlike previous rallies by Mr. Williamson’s organization, its members didn’t carry the Confederate Battle Flag or talk about preserving historical monuments; this was supposed to be about “Southern values,” not Confederate iconography.

The so-called “Christian Flag” (a red cross in a blue rectangle on a white background) and the original Betsy Ross thirteen stars and stripes were the emblems of the day. Yet the past was on many minds. “These kids don’t know nothing about their own history” said one burly man bearing the “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag as he glared at the protestors calling him names.

Mr. Williamson used the word “heritage” several times throughout the day. When I engaged him, he said “there’s no need for race-baiting” after I tried to discuss what happened in North Carolina during the Civil War. But I hadn’t mentioned slavery, and was thinking of the conflict between two groups of dead white men, the Triad’s small farmers and the Confederate government that Mr. Williamson’s organization was founded to commemorate. “You have what you think your history books say, but I have the heritage in my heart” he said as he turned away.

Back in September, social media buzzed when Mr. Williamson’s organization announced their intention of celebrating that imagined heritage by lining I-40 with Confederate Battle Flags. Their online fundraiser seems to have fizzled out at 23 donors and $1,280, far short of either their $28,000 they claimed necessary to place 23 “very large” flags along the Interstate in 18 counties.

In an email he sent me in November, Gary Williamson said he was undiscouraged, explaining that ACTBAC is concentrating on the “Virginia Flaggers” rally being held on Jan. 14 in Lexington, Virginia. This march intended to honor the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and “defend Southern heritage” has sparked controversy for being held the Saturday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“We are working with other organizations from many different states and making plans to celebrate the resting place of Lee and Jackson. Alamance County has had no issues and North Carolina as a whole has not had any attacks on our heritage or history,” Williamson said.

North Carolina may not have seen recent “attacks” on “Southern heritage,” but during the Civil War, many Triad Southerners felt themselves to be under attack, not from Union forces, but from Confederate troops. This is the history that NC “Heritagers” like Mr. Williamson don’t talk about. Consider the story of Mary Owens.

On April 23, 1864, a posse of civilians and Confederate soldiers under the command of Colonel Alfred Pike of the Randolph County Home Guard accosted Mary at a spring near her family’s farm on the Moore/Randolph line. Pike was looking for Mary’s husband William, who’d turned “outlier,” or pro-Union guerilla. Incensed by the Confederate Government’s draconian conscription laws, “Captain” Bill Owens took the hatred that so many small farmers towards felt towards the plantation gentry to a militant extreme, and for two years his outliers challenged the governments in Raleigh and Richmond for control of Randolph County.

Pike suspected that Owens, recently wounded in a skirmish with the “Secesh” (as Unionists called Confederate loyalists) was recuperating in a hideout nearby. When Mary refused to tell him where it was, he struck her until she dropped the infant in her arms. Then he and his men beat her, dragged her across a rocky clearing, and hung her by her thumbs from a tree. When this failed to make her talk, they smashed her fingers between fence posts. Sobbing in agony and threatened with rape, she revealed her injured husband’s hiding place and he was quickly captured and taken to the Asheboro jail. On Sept. 29, the Greensboro Patriot reported that he was transferred from the Randolph County jail to the Chatham one in Pittsboro to await trial. It never happened. The presiding judge, like so many in the Piedmont, had Union sympathies and declined to try the case. On April 15, 1865, a mob dragged Owens from the jail and lynched him.

This is the “heritage” that neo-Confederates won’t talk about. ACTBAC wants to “take back” a county that in 1861 voted 1,114 to 254 against secession (the only time they were allowed to vote on the subject), and where peace rallies were held in 1864 advocating a return to the Union.

Gary Williamson did not respond to my questions about the Piedmont’s resistance to the Confederacy. On his organization’s Facebook page is a “meme” with the image of the Stars and Bars and this text: “When asked by a Yankee why he fought, the young Southern soldier replied ‘Because you’re down here.” But that’s not what happened in this part of North Carolina.

According to one legend about how this state got its nickname, Robert E. Lee said “God bless the Tarheel boys” after a battle in which a North Carolina battalion scolded their retreating Virginia brethren by threatening to stick tar on their heels to make them stand and fight. The myth doesn’t reflect the real attitude of the government for which Lee fought. If either Jefferson Davis had been asked about “the Tarheel boys,” he might have been more likely to use the verb “damn” instead of “bless.”

Between 1861 and 1865, many conscript and volunteer troops from North Carolina acted as if they had wings on their heels instead of tar. On battlefields from Virginia to Pennsylvania, they stood fast in the face of heavy losses, but before and after each engagement, deserted by the thousands. It wasn’t that they were afraid to fight, as those who tried to force them into service found out, but because they had no love for the “Glorious Cause” of the planters who exploited them.

This was particularly true in the “Quaker Belt” that included the counties of Randolph, Chatham, Moore, Davidson, Guilford, Forsyth, Davie, Surry, Wilkes, Montgomery, Orange, Alamance, Stokes and Iredell. Despite the peaceful connotations of “Quaker,” CSA troops and Home Guard militiamen enforcing the will of Jefferson Davis’s government in this part of North Carolina were much more likely to shoot at and be shot at by disgruntled Tarheels than Yankees.

Groups like ACTBAC promote a false narrative of Southern Solidarity in the Face of Northern Aggression. In truth, the South suffered its own divisions over the issues of Emancipation, Secession and the role of centralized government. It was a conflict not just between the states but within the states, and nowhere was what the late historian William Auman called “the Civil War inside the Civil War” fought more fiercely than in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Piedmont was different long before Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter. The small farmers and artisans who came down the Great Wagon Road from the North tended to be Quakers, Moravians and Wesleyans, denominations opposed to slavery. Because of the Quaker Belt’s rocky soil, plantation culture never prevailed. The independent sustenance farmer who owned no slaves was the norm, and his culture and the plantation culture of the coastal plain were increasingly at odds. Heritagers promote antebellum nostalgia about Scarlet O’Hara and Tara, but much of North Carolina’s Quaker Belt saw such big landowners as feudal oppressors.

The rest of the Confederacy never quite forgave Tarheels for their ambivalence about leaving the Union. In May of 1861, North Carolina became the next-to-last state to secede, five months after delegates to South Carolina’s Secession Convention voted unanimously to do so. The future Governor Vance had himself been against secession in the months before Fort Sumter. In the waning days of the war, when North Carolinian’s civilians were offering Sherman no resistance as he rolled through the state, Vance wrote that “. . . the great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians, not the people.”

One Alabama newspaper called North Carolina delegates to the Confederate States Organization Conference “political hermaphrodites” because they were “sort of so, sort of not so.” Jefferson Davis consistently excluded Tarheels from high ranking political and military appointments, as punishment for the way the majority of the state’s non-slaveholding population had voted against Secession. Put simply, the Confederacy didn’t trust North Carolina.

This was the problem that Zeb Vance faced when he became our second Confederate governor in September of 1862, one year and five months into the war. Vance’s Conservative Party crushed the Confederate Party at the polls, and he carried all the Quaker Belt counties and won 89.8 % of the total vote. Because he enjoyed the support of a region that the CSA regarded as disloyal, he himself was under suspicion. One hostile newspaper called him “the Massachusetts candidate.” Needing to prove himself, Vance declared his unqualified support for the war effort, and promised that he would vigorously enforce conscription. True to his word, he went after the resisters and draft dodgers of the Quaker Belt until the last days of the war.

Much of the dissent was in Davidson, Guilford and Alamance counties. Writing to a friend on May 4, 1861, one B. V. Smith complained of little success in attempting to raise a Home Guard unit to combat “traitors” in the Centre Community, the Quaker settlement on the Guilford/Randolph border. According to Smith, “all but four or five” landowners there were Unionists.

On July 31, 1861, J. F. Shaffner, a young member of a 160-man Confederate detachment sent to quell Unionist sentiment in High Point, wrote to “My Dear Miss Carrie” that “It appears that some of the good citizens of our adjoining county Davidson have not forgotten their especial devotion to that great prince of baboons Abe Lincoln” (secessionists regularly described Lincoln in language reminiscent of the invective that some members of the Tea Party use for Barak Obama).

On May 6, 1861, Jesse Wheeler, a Unionist from Greensboro, wrote to a friend that “the people in the counties of Guilford, Randolph and the adjoining counties are unshaken in their devotion to the Stars and Stripes.”

Writing to Lt. Governor Henry Toole Clarke on July 18, 1861, J. H. Moore warned that Militant Unionists were organizing in Davidson County in secret meetings held under the United States Flag, where they swore fealty to Lincoln. He claimed that there were more than 500 of them in Davidson County, under the leadership of one John Hilton. Little is known of Hilton, a buggy maker from Thomasville and a founding member of the Heroes of America, a clandestine organization formed in North Carolina with the express purpose of bringing down the Confederacy. The Heroes harbored spies, helped POWs escape, and spirited hounded Unionists and runaway slaves to Free States. Through pamphlets and clandestine meetings, they persuaded Confederate soldiers to desert their units and hid them from the conscription patrols.

On March 7, 1862, Hilton organized a peace rally at the Kennedy School House near Thomasville and proposed a scheme to rescue Yankee captives from the notorious Confederate Prison at Salisbury, North Carolina’s even more brutal version of the infamous Andersonville in south-central Georgia. Alerted that the Heroes of America were stockpiling arms and gunpowder for an uprising, Zebulon Vance’s predecessor Governor Clark sent 300 troops to High Point and ordered the entire 33rd Regiment of North Carolina Troops to converge on the rally. Many were arrested, but Hilton eluded them, fled over the mountains into Tennessee, and enlisted in the Union Navy.

North Carolina’s newspapers rarely reported this kind of dissent for fear of demoralizing the troops. Only later would the Heroes of America be revealed as a complex, secret organization with more than 10,000 sworn members. Its other founders included Dr. John Lewis Johnson, a native Philadelphian who moved to North Carolina as a boy, studied medicine in Lexington, and practiced in Forsyth County. After being forced to enlist in the Confederate Army, he was captured during the Sharpsburg Campaign, and returned south on parole. Under suspicion of treason, he still aided the Heroes by proselytizing for them all over the state. Another prominent member was Henderson Adams of Davidson County, who served as state senator from 1862 till the end of the war.

Many know that a disproportionate amount of Tarheels enlisted in or were conscripted for the Confederate cause, but remain unaware of just how many fought against it. More Tarheels wore blue uniforms and marched under the Stars and Stripes than did the citizens of any other Southern state. At least 10,000 white and 5,000 black North Carolinians joined Union army units and fought against the Confederacy. And although North Carolina provided two out of every five CSA soldiers, it also accounted for one out or every four deserters, with 23,694 abandoning their units to return home. Lee himself complained about the state’s desertion rate, and Virginia newspapers mocked the combat willingness of North Carolina troops.

That reluctance was strongest in the Piedmont. In 1861, Davidson had the lowest enlistment rate of any Quaker Belt county, at 9.5%, with Guilford next at 11.8 (Statewide, the enlistment rate was 24.3 %). It wasn’t cowardice, but it wasn’t just principle, either. The Piedmont’s yeoman farmers typically worked their small tracts of land themselves. When they left their farms for the army, or increasingly, were dragged away from those farms by conscription agents, their crops rotted in the field. The single biggest cause of Tarheel resistance to the Confederacy was the draft.

Conscription was a sore point in almost every state on both sides of the bloody conflict, but nowhere in the South was it more resented than in North Carolina. In February 1862, Zebulon Vance’s predecessor Governor Clark instituted the statewide draft one month before the Confederate Congress passed its first national conscription act. Clark resigned his office abruptly after one term, and Zeb Vance inherited the problem of conscription. The CSA’s Conscription Act of April 16, 1862, made men 16-35 eligible for the draft. The maximum age was upped to 45 after Gettysburg and to 50 after Jeff Davis’s favorite inept general, Braxton Bragg, was humiliated at Chattanooga. In the Piedmont, eligible men avoided the draft by dressing as women, hacking off their own fingers, and breaking their own toes. Swarthy white men claimed to be part black. The “20 negro rule,” which allowed exemption to any man with 20 or more slaves, increased the feeling that this was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

Vance’s very efforts to help the war led to increased tension with Richmond. The new governor didn’t want his farmers, clothiers, arms makers and doctors used as cannon fodder. He wished to enforce conscription strategically, with exemptions for men he needed at home. Having recently commanded troops himself, he wanted to give North Carolina recruits the right to select the regiment in which they’d serve. Davis seemed to accede to this, and then ignored it. In October 1862, a party of 100 men from a “lukewarm” area of the state arrived in Raleigh to sign up, citing as their inducement the fact that they’d been promised that they could select their regiments.

Instead, General Samuel French, the Richmond agent with whom Vance most often butted heads, had them rounded up and parceled out, in Vance’s words (ironic ones considering that it was a fight to preserve slavery) “like chattel property.” Desertions, the very thing Vance had promised to quell, increased exponentially. While the Quaker Belt contained 25 percent of the state’s population, it supplied over 40 percent of the draftees, and that draft was being increasingly resisted.

Jackson Jones, a 30-year-old Quaker from Davidson County, provided one example of what happened to resisters when the military got a hold of them. He was “bucked down” (hands tied between his knees), stabbed with a bayonet, refused food and water, and had one of his ears cut off. Despite this torture, his brother William testified that “he always spoke his sentiments boldly and openly, no matter who was present,” and finally the army discharged him. Others were even less fortunate, and not all resisters were as pacifist as Jones.

The Piedmont achieved notoriety throughout the Confederacy in January 1862 when “A Traveler” wrote “The Demand for Vigilance,” an anonymous expose in the Richmond Examiner denouncing the “traitorous” region. “There is a strip of country in North Carolina which is largely disloyal. Beginning with Randolph and Guilford, it extends through Davidson, Forsyth, Davie, Yadkin, into Wilkes.”

“A Traveler” recommended that troops be dispatched to “Salem or Winston” to “scour the whole of this disloyal region.” Secessionists in Randolph County, concerned about the militant activities of the Unionists, organized a Vigilance Committee called the Home Guards at the start of the war to suppress “disloyalty” among blacks and whites. These complaints of disloyalty led the State Legislature to pass the Treason Law on May 11, 1861, prescribing death to anyone professing allegiance to the Union.

At the end of 1862, Zebulon Vance faced what was increasingly looking like an internal civil war. In the Quaker Belt alone, hundreds were deserting. Many joined the draft-dodgers and militant unionists already in hiding. Many of these joined the Heroes of America, flying the Union flag and organizing themselves into militias that took up arms against Confederate and state troops. Even more so than in notorious “Bloody Kansas,” it was neighbor against neighbor.

In William Owens, North Carolina had its own version of Newton Knight, the Mississippi Unionist recently played by Matthew McConaughey in the film The Free State of Jones. Owens may not have shared Knight’s belief in the equality of men, and his story ended less happily, but he opposed the Confederacy just as violently.

When the conscription age was raised to 50, Owens organized a band of armed guerillas and declared de facto war on the Confederacy. Raiding and scavenging throughout the region, Owens and his band pretty much seized control of Moore and Randolph Counties. Despite writing letters expressing his reluctance to take up arms against North Carolinians, Governor Vance was forced to send troops to the area. The first sweep, launched in the fall of 1862, met with little success, beating the bushes for two months without rounding up more than a handful of dissidents. A second expedition, in February of 1863, fared little better.

In April of 1863, Vance requested regular troops, saying the guerillas could “lick my militia in a fair fight.” The troops were not available until that summer. They entered a region that was a powder keg, the ranks of malcontents having been swelled by the influx of new and even more disillusioned deserters after the horrors of Gettysburg. In a letter to a friend, Vance estimated that there were now at least 1,100 armed and organized “Outliers” in the Moore-Randolph-Chatham- County border area alone. General Robert Hoke began a five month campaign that ranged from Wilkes and Yadkin to Chatham and Moore Counties.

To quote local historian Bill Trotter, author of Silk Flags and Cold Steel: The Civil War in North Carolina, Vol. 1: The Piedmont, “While Hoke’s men behaved with a degree of restraint . . . the Home Guard Units called out to assist them did not. Instead, they used the proximity of regular Confederate units to settle a lot of old scores.” Farms were burned, property looted, children beaten and women raped.

Space does not allow proper treatment of many other significant incidents in North Carolina’s “civil war within the Civil War,” such as the brutalities of the Confederate prison at Salisbury, or the North Carolinians of Color who resisted the Confederacy and joined the Union cause. This article’s focus on the resistance of white North Carolinians to the Confederacy is not intended to excuse slavery or diminish the allegiance and contribution of African-Americans to the Northern cause. But their sympathies in the War of Southern Determination to Preserve Slavery, a more accurate label than “The War of Northern Aggression,” are long acknowledged.

Even racist fictions like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind depict many African-Americans siding with the Union (albeit while portraying them as opportunistic predators). What the “Heritage, not Hate” crowd seems less willing to acknowledge is just how many of their own poor white ancestors opposed the cause represented by the Stars and Bars. The story of southern white resistance to the Confederacy needs to be told, not to exculpate the region’s detestable tradition of slavery, but because so many modern southern whites misunderstand the “heritage” they mythologize.

The author wishes to acknowledge the late historian William T. Auman, whose Civil War in the North Carolina Quaker Belt: The Confederate Campaign Against Peace Agitators, Deserters and Draft Dodgers (McFarland, 2014) is the best book-length treatment of this subject.

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